Julie Bindel does not deserve a “no-platform” policy

Julie BindelThis week Julie Bindel (right) is due to speak in a debate at Essex University about pornography. Bindel is a radical feminist best known for her work with Justice for Women, a group that fought to get women who killed violent husbands and partners out of prison starting with Sara Thornton in the early 90s; she has also written extensively on violence against women, on prostitution and people-trafficking, transgenderism and pornography. Someone has started a petition to get her dis-invited, however, and so far it has attracted 200 signatures, mostly from well away from the university. The event she is due to speak at next week is aimed at first year undergrads and is part of their “Think!” seminars, organised by the social sciences faculty. While other attempts to prevent Julie Bindel appearing at university events have been successful, at present she is still listed as attending the event. (I read about this campaign on the Edinburgh-based feminist Louise Pennington’s blog, but she does not accept comments from men anymore. She covered a previous attempt to exclude Julie Bindel, and I did comment on that.)

The cause of the hostility is a series of articles Bindel wrote on transgenderism; she is known to be opposed to male-to-female transgenderism in particular, and is notorious for an article she wrote for the Guardian Weekend magazine in 2004. The article has since been deleted, but is available in image form here; it includes a number of nasty stereotypes of transsexuals such as “at least those women were women, and hadn’t gone to gender reassignment clinics to have their breasts sliced off and a penis made out of their beer bellies”, but the opinions are pretty typical of a certain type of lesbian radical feminist: that transgenderism is a reaction to homophobia, that it consists of reinforcing traditional gender roles rather than breaking them down, and that “a surgically constructed vagina and hormonally grown breasts [do not] make you a woman”. The latter is probably more widely shared outside the rad fem community than the first two, along with the notion that having been a man, and lived as a man, until middle age does not make one particularly well qualified to counsel (female) rape victims (it is possible that some will not mind, but others will).

This event is not about transgenderism, however; it’s about pornography, and radical feminists are well known to be opposed to the popularisation of pornography because it often depicts abuse (albeit of adults, not children) and because it depicts women appearing to enjoy sexual acts that are degrading to them. In addition, the widespread availability of this material means that children can also easily get hold of it, and it is known to have an effect on what boys expect from girls in a relationship and the way they treat them. Some feminists also cast doubt on the consent given to the acts they have to engage in when in pornography; while they may have signed a contract at the beginning, they may not have fully realised or been informed of what acts the ‘job’ would entail. The fact is that there are plenty of objections to pornography, and reasons why it should be restricted or kept away from children especially, and if they did not get a feminist to debate that side of the argument, they would have to get someone with a religious reason to be against pornography, and he would probably come across as not trying to sound too prudish or conservative and his (or her) arguments would not resonate very well, particularly with younger and non-religious students.

Having seen some of the ‘objections’ to Bindel’s appearance that are listed on the Change.org petition, it seems that much of it boils down to “she’s a TERF” (trans exclusionary radical feminist) and little else. The person who wrote the petition is a man, and is from Durham, which is a long way from Essex. Most of the signatories were not from the university, or the area, or even the UK. They all objected to her writings on transgenderism, suggesting that her mere presence would make the university an unsafe place for trans women, and did not even touch on her opinions on pornography or the sex trade (probably they do not know about her campaigning on violence against women). There is one comment (from someone in Hale, which is also a long way from Essex) that says:

It is one thing to tolerate the views of the hatefilled, it is quite another to invite them to toss vitriol into our faces

But having heard Julie Bindel talk about the sex trade (and discussing the idea of a legalised sex trade with a Nevada brothel owner on BBC Woman’s Hour), I can say that she doesn’t “toss vitriol” at anyone or indeed bring her work on other issues, whether it’s domestic violence or transgenderism, into her anti-sex-trade work. She sounded pretty calm and reasonable to me, and had clearly done her research, which is more than can be said for many of the signatories to this petition.

This is not the first time Bindel has faced efforts to prevent her speaking at a university event; sometimes they have involved appealing to the university or the venue concerned, and other times it has consisted of sending her death and rape threats. This reflects a sinister ‘creep’ of the no-platform policy from its original application to racists and fascists to pretty much anyone who has opinions that anyone considers bigoted, even if they are not being given a platform to express those particular opinions; there has been a wave of incidents in which conferences have been cancelled because they were to discuss views that were less than liberal on matters of sexuality, but were not violent, much less racist or fascist. It is right to ban racists and others whose presence on campus may cause violence or intimidate dissenting or minority students or staff; Julie Bindel is not a violent person, has no history of using political violence and is no threat to anyone. (And if you have ever joined in or supported an effort to get a Muslim speaker banned because he has expressed “anti-Semitic” or “homophobic” views at some point, or shared a platform with someone who has, you are participating in the same tendency of using censorship to defeat ideas you dislike.)

There is much I disagree with among Julie Bindel’s views, much as with a lot of other radical feminists, but these are things that can be debated, because they are not going to bring a bunch of thugs into the debate or to hang around the venue afterwards. In the case of feminists hostile to transgender people, one might make an exception for those who harassed them, outed them or tried to interfere in their education or medical treatment, but I have never heard of Julie Bindel doing this. The debate is about pornography and she is one of the best people to put the case against from a feminist point of view, as it is a genre that thrives on the exploitation of women (the other speaker that springs to mind is Gail Dines, who is also known to associate with the same group of radical feminists). I hope Essex University lets the debate go ahead and is not swayed by this small, noisy, self-selecting group of would-be censors.

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